I was 12 years old when I wrote my first suicide note. Growing up, I would hear the same line constantly: “Our family had a history of mental illness and depression, and that’s why this or that happened.”
That speech was the number one excuse for just about everything my mother did. If we lived in a honeycomb of lies and self-deception, then my mother was the queen bee of excuses. And while it bugged me, I always forgave her because, you know, she was my mother. Back then, I just figured she was always going through rough stuff.
She was manic. She’d be the happiest being on the planet one day, making me breakfast and packing a lunch; she’d clean the house up and be at my soccer game that night. She relished cheering me on. I said “clean,” but that wasn’t right. Our house was always a mess. “Clean” just meant that you could walk into all of the rooms except the garage — that place was a wasteland. We’d go home and build puzzles and chat about nonsense. We’d have these totally perfect days where the universe just clicked and life was great because it was her and me knocking it out of the park.
But then she’d have the bad days and life would suck our house dry. My mom’s room would become this utter neutral zone where everything happy would go to die, and she’d just blare the TV on the worst channels. She’d soak in reality television and she’d talk about how horrible those people were for living their lives that way. Mom would stay up way too late and not wake up on time to make me breakfast, and I’d pack my own lunches. I’d walk home from school when she’d forget to pick me up. It wasn’t so bad; the upside was that the long walks kept me in shape for soccer.
I’d get home and wake her up. We’d eat a TV dinner, ramen, or pizza on our plastic plates, with our plastic silverware, while we sat in our plastic chairs. We would look at the sink, filled with plastic. Sometimes we’d joke about how we would do the dishes that upcoming weekend, but we never would.
In a lot of ways, I was like my mother. Even back then, I could see that. I knew what I was becoming, and I knew it was due largely to her influence. It didn’t matter what friends I picked, it didn’t matter what books I’d sink myself into, or how often I’d try to do the self-improvement thing: my mother would always be there to either build me up or break me down to her level. If she was going through something dark, the world was going along for the ride.
I lost a lot of friends because of her. I mean, not directly, but indirectly. I’d be talking to a new friend and we’d get super close, and then I just wouldn’t be as chipper one day, or maybe mom was going through a rough patch and I’d just kind of burn the bridge. I’d say something petty or cruel, and then I’d be back the next day acting like nothing happened. I basically built a negative persona. I was the psycho chubby chick who wore too much black, or tried too hard, or couldn’t find a boy or thought about cutting. I was just trying to make up for being so crappy. Being a kid sucks. And girls can be mean.
Sometimes I would think about what life would have been like if mom had taken her meds all the time. When she was on them, she wouldn’t have the low points, but she also wouldn’t ever get those high moments. The moments where she and I were a real family. When she was on the meds, though, we never had those times where we’d click. We’d just sit around the table or the TV and kind of chill out. Which wasn’t bad, except that she was so boring. I knew she wasn’t happy living like that. So when she wouldn’t take the meds, I never really blamed her. I mean, I partly did, like you blame a dog for shitting in the house. It’s irritating, but also somewhat expected. Looking back, I can see why she would say “screw it.”
Mom was cool about a lot of things. She let me pretend I had boyfriends and she would never call me out on it when I talked about how popular I was. Maybe she even really believed me. She’d be pretty chill about letting me watch whatever I wanted to on TV. And she never checked my homework or any of that sort of tiger mom stuff.
I guess if I had to boil everything down between her and me, I’d have to say my feelings are pretty complicated. I became the person I am because of the love she showed me. But I also turned out the way I did because of the stuff she put me through. Like, who gives their little girl cigarettes? I still can’t bring myself to quit. And I never recovered from any of the advice she would give me about how to deal with bullies. Everything I would try would just make it worse and worse. It was so overwhelming, and the one person I needed to stand up for me would just shrug that stuff off and tell me life sucked. That wasn’t really what I needed to hear. Where were those talks about making friends, or how to be the cool kid, or how to not screw up friendships? I wanted the adult and I was being raised by the child.
I came home one day. And the entire house was clean. The floors, the kitchen, the living room. For a moment, I thought that my mother had abandoned me. But then it clicked when I saw what she had left out.
My mother had left out a paper bag packed with a lunch dated for the next day, and a half completed puzzle on our dining room table. The plastic in the sink had all been washed and put away. She didn’t need to leave a note: I knew what it all meant.
I ran throughout the entire house. Room to room. Ever since Dad had left, we had the whole place packed full of useless stuff, but with it all gone, I had no idea where to look for her. The last place I thought to look was the garage. When I threw open the door, there she was, hanging from the ceiling, kicking and thrashing. At first it wasn’t happening — that sort of thing couldn’t really happen. But in an instant the adrenaline and reality of the moment pushed me into the room and toward my mother. She was still alive. She was scratching at the rope and I knew I could save her if I could just lift her high enough.
But I was 12.
And I just… couldn’t. I stood there, holding my mother up for a long time. Trying to hold her up high enough to keep the rope slack, but I wasn’t strong enough. The rope wasn’t slack. The kicking had stopped probably hours before I finally let myself let go of her. In the end, she had laid a hand on top of my head. Like everything was totally alright.
My legs were so tired from trying to lift her that I had to sit down. I sat there for a long time.
Her face had been scratched up from when she tried to grab the rope. Her beautiful face.
All of my life, I had been told that depression and mental illness ran in my family. While I was growing up, that never used to bother me. So what, right? But, now, it keeps me up at night. Knowing that the only person I loved in my life was capable of something so low. She must have been in a pretty dark place.
And, well, I didn’t want her to leave without saying everything she needed to say. I didn’t want to just call the cops and spill the story. I didn’t even know how to begin a phone conversation like that. I was 12. She needed closure. I needed closure. So I found some paper and wrote my mother’s suicide note the best way I could. I didn’t want the cops to think she was totally insane, because sometimes I felt the way she must have. It ran in the family. Sometimes, when I’m feeling really low, I reread the note. A note written on the cleanest table I had ever seen in my life. The smell of pine not helping with the tears. I wrote that note in a house that wasn’t mine. My home was a home of cluttered genius, a home of TV dinners and soda and dust mites and pizza boxes. Maybe it was the fakest moment of my life. Maybe it was the most real moment I had ever experienced. My final effort to appease my mother through an act of self-delusion.
The note written by the sunshine version of my mother, as I remember the woman she could be. The potential she had to live a beautiful life was amazing. I’ll always love her for that, but she didn’t finish building the puzzle.